Millions of Americans have genital herpes, and most don’t know it. Learn to recognize genital herpes symptoms to prevent complications and infecting others.
Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD). Anyone who is sexually active, no matter their age, can become infected with this viral infection by having unprotected sex with someone who has the STD.
About one in eight people in the U.S. between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes. However, research shows around 90 percent of them probably don’t know they have the infection, the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) points out.
That’s because most people with the virus have no symptoms, or they have mild symptoms that they ignore. What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, some genital herpes symptoms are often mistaken for another skin condition or infection — such as an ingrown hair or a pimple.
But even if a person has no obvious genital herpes symptoms at all, the infection can still be transmitted to sex partners, according to the CDC.
To protect your health and that of your partner, it’s important to understand genital herpes symptoms — including when to get tested and treated for this STD.
Two viruses cause genital herpes symptoms
Genital herpes is caused by two strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). And, once you are infected with either type of herpes simplex, the virus remains in your body, hiding until it re-emerges to cause an outbreak of symptoms.
Most genital herpes cases are caused by infection with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is very common and, in fact, about 50 percent of Americans have it. HSV-1 is what causes cold sores (also called fever blisters) around the mouth from time to time. While it’s not as likely to cause genital herpes as HSV-2, both strains of HSV can cause the STD via oral sex. In fact, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can occur in either the genital or oral areas of the body, ASHA warns.
Bottom line: You can contract genital herpes by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex from saliva (if your sex partner has an oral herpes infection) or genital secretions (if your partner has a genital herpes infection). However, it’s crucial to remember that your sex partner may not have a visible sore and may not know if he or she is infected.
Don’t ignore genital herpes symptoms
Genital herpes symptoms may appear as one or several blisters on or near the genitals or rectum. After the blisters break, they often turn into painful sores. Over time, in about a week, the sores heal.
It’s important to treat the first episode of initial genital herpes symptoms because they can be severe, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In addition to ulcer-like sores, fever and body aches can occur, and lymph nodes may be painful and swollen, according to NIH herpes expert Jeffrey I. Cohen, MD.
If you think you may have contracted genital herpes, talk to your doctor. A diagnosis can be made by taking a sample of the sore for lab tests. A blood test for HSV-1 and HSV-2 can also be used to see if a person has been infected with the STD, whether or not symptoms are present.
If you are infected with herpes simplex, you may have no symptoms for long periods of time, but the virus can re-emerge at any time. Some people have outbreaks multiple times a year, and there may be warning signs — tingling or burning in the genital area — just prior to a genital herpes outbreak.
Genital herpes health complications
Although genital herpes outbreaks can cause uncomfortable and even painful symptoms, they are generally not dangerous if you are a healthy adult, according to ASHA herpes expert H. Hunter Handsfield, MD. However, if you do have genital herpes, you are at increased risk for becoming infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (or, if you already have HIV, you are more likely to infect your sexual partner with it).
There is also a serious danger from genital herpes for women who are pregnant or become pregnant. Genital herpes infection may lead to miscarriage and can be passed to the unborn child before or during birth, causing a potentially deadly infection in the baby (neonatal herpes).
If you are pregnant and have any symptoms of genital herpes, or have ever been diagnosed with the infection, it’s crucial to tell your doctor and to follow through with all prenatal care.
Learn how to protect yourself from genital herpes
There’s no cure for genital herpes. However, there are prescription medications that can not only speed healing of genital herpes sores and symptoms but also lower your risk of future outbreaks.
If you do not have the STD, these strategies that can lower the risk of contracting the disease, according to the CDC:
- Commit to a long-term monogamous relationship with a partner who, like you, has been tested and has negative STD test results.
- Use latex condoms every time you have sex. But be aware condoms may not fully protect you from getting genital herpes; not all herpes sores occur in areas covered by a condom.
- If you are in a relationship with a person known to have genital herpes, your risk of getting genital herpes will be reduced if your partner takes an anti-herpes medication daily. Avoid vaginal, oral, or anal sex when your partner is having an outbreak, too, and remember you can contract genital herpes even if your infected partner has no obvious genital herpes symptoms.
November 30, 2018
Janet O’Dell, RN